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This article first appeared in Vintage Fashion & Costume Jewelry, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2004, Pages 16-19, and used with Permission.


Victoria Flemming: An Independent Woman
By Cheri Van Hoover


At the estate sale of a wealthy man of taste and discrimination I happened upon a collection of hand painted porcelain cufflinks, all marked VICTORIA FLEMMING. Some were also marked N.Y. They appeared to date to the 1950s or 1960s, and were of very high quality. I became intrigued. One inquiry led to another, and before I knew it I was on the phone talking to one of the most delightful women it's been my privilege to know. I am honored to be able to tell her story to this group.

Victoria Flemming & her cuff links


From top: Opal fused glass cufflinks; blue fused glass; amber fused glass; Victoria Flemming's mark.

Born in 1918, Victoria Pasternack was the daughter of a musical family of modest means. She was raised in New Jersey, where as a young woman she took her first job working at Fulper Pottery. She did underglaze painting for Fulper, and reports that the work was hard and dirty. "I can still feel that clay beneath my fingernails." Despite the way her neck and shoulders ached at the end of each day, she did well at the job, working so fast the other women asked her to go slower so their daily quotas wouldn't be increased. The salary of $13.00 per week seemed too little for the hard work she was doing, so Victoria moved on to New York City after only 1-1/2 months at Fulper.

In New York, she continued to learn the craft of china painting. She worked at a variety of factories and small workshops producing dinnerware, lamp bases, and personalized cigarette boxes. One day a fellow visiting one of these workshops put some porcelain brooches into the kiln to fire. Victoria was fascinated by the idea of painted porcelain jewelry, and a new career was born.

Her first venture into selling this jewelry was at the Greenwich Village Art Show at 8th Street and 6th Avenue. This was New York's earliest craft show venue, in the heart of the avant-garde artists' community that was setting the standard in the United States for modern art expression of all types. Victoria thrived in this richly creative environment, where she also met her second husband. He was a handsome, charming, sweet talker with a knack for salesmanship. After he was kicked out of the show for selling leather goods crafted by others at his own booth, he found his way to Victoria's stall and began hawking the brooches and earrings she made. Immediately, her sales shot up! Victoria's first husband, Andrew Flemming, had provided her professional name. This second husband, Bill Dwyer, located a source for the marked findings she used for her cufflinks and other jewelry and taught her the fine art of making people want to buy your product.

Skitch Henderson, conductor and founder of the New York Pops, was indirectly responsible for a new direction which eventually became her entire line. Some of his friends visited her booth and were impressed by the bold modernist look of her jewelry. They wanted to buy cufflinks for Skitch, which she wasn't producing at that time. Her husband told her he'd take care of it, and soon came up with a source for cufflink backs. Her career as a designer and manufacturer of men's jewelry was off and running, with Skitch Henderson as one of her first customers.

Mortimer Levitt


Moritimer Levitt, owner of the Custom Shirt Shop Shirtmakers who became Flemming's biggest customer.

She began to display from a booth on 57th Street. One day, Mortimer Levitt and his wife walked past and saw visiting conventioneers eagerly purchasing cufflinks as souvenirs of their visit to New York. Mr. Levitt, a high school dropout, was the owner of the Custom Shop shirtmakers. In 1938 he had begun an innovative business which sold custom-made shirts at prices comparable to ready-made merchandise. This wildly successful venture eventually expanded to 80 stores nationwide. During World War II most shirts had button cuffs, rather than French cuffs, because of fabric shortages and the lack of metals for use in cufflinks. Now that the war was over, Mr. Levitt was promoting the revival of more formal and elegant French cuff shirts. Mrs. Levitt, a woman well known for her exquisite taste, encouraged her husband to commission Victoria to make cufflinks to be sold in the Custom Shop stores. She believed he would sell more French cuff shirts if he could also offer quality jewelry to go with them.

Victoria remembers clearly the day she first went to the Custom Shirt offices to meet with Mr. Levitt and his general manager. She says she was wearing a straw hat with a ribbon down her back and a blue dress with white polka dots. Although she was in her early 30s at that time, she must have looked very young (and I suspect very pretty), because Mr. Levitt was quite taken aback when he saw her.

"I didn't realize you were so young!" he said.

Victoria just looked at him coolly and replied, "Well, if you do business with me, you'll find out how young I really am."

Mr. Levitt must have been quite impressed with her, because his general manager appeared not to be impressed at all. The manager treated Victoria with thinly veiled contempt and urged Levitt to accept the cufflinks only on consignment. Since the order being discussed was for the princely sum of $500.00, Victoria held her ground. Finally, Mr. Levitt intervened.

"Don't you think we can afford $500.00?" he said to his manager.

So Victoria had her commission and began a long and profitable relationship with Custom Shops. Twice each year she would bring her new design prototypes to the Custom Shop headquarters where Mr. Levitt and his entire staff would look at the pieces and vote on which would be put into production. Mr. Levitt remarked on one occasion that it was interesting to him how rarely his choices won. This clever use of his staff as a form of early focus group is a telling example of his business acumen. Victoria Flemming cufflinks sold for $3.50 at the Custom Shop and were featured in the store windows. She received $1.75 per pair.

Victoria Flemming Poodle cufflinks


Victoria Flemming painted poodle cufflinks.

Bill Dwyer was a native of New Orleans, so the couple moved with their children to that city. Victoria rented a stall in the Court of the Two Sisters, the famous outdoor restaurant at the heart of the French Quarter. For $20 a month she had access to hordes of tourists bent on enjoying themselves to the fullest at this epicenter of carefree abandon. Needless to say, her business thrived. Unfortunately, the marriage did not. Mr. Dwyer found it much more pleasant to pass the days socializing with friends and flirting with pretty tourists than applying himself to making a living. Independent and plain-talking, Victoria found it easier to go on without him, despite having two young children.

By this time, however, she was in love with New Orleans, and that's where she stayed to raise her children. When the owner of the Court of the Two Sisters tried to raise her rent to $50 a month, she used her powers of persuasion to talk him down to $35. Eventually, the restaurant changed hands after the owner's wife died under mysterious circumstances, and Victoria was forced to move her operations around the corner to a stall off Royal Street, painting the cufflinks at the back of the stall while selling finished product at the front.

Victoria considered herself primarily a china painter; in the long tradition of women artists who have done this work both professionally and as hobbyists. What set her apart from the others, however, were her choice of subject matter and her bold use of color. Traditional china painting was soft and romantic, frequently using flowers or other scenes from nature as their themes. Victoria's designs were, in her words, "more modernistic" and "stylized." When asked about the inspiration for these choices, she is at a loss to explain. "I just sit and look at the pieces of porcelain, and then the design just comes out of me." It is interesting to note, however, that she never truly thought of herself as either an artist or a craftsperson. "I was a mother trying to support her kids."

The biggest changes to her jewelry line over the years were the elimination of the brooches and earrings after cufflinks became her most successful product and the development of a second technique using fused glass on porcelain. Flat porcelain was used as the base for these cufflinks, then opaque and translucent glass shards were balanced atop the porcelain and fired. Lacy designs of gold gilt were then painted over the fused layers and the pieces were fired again. Different types of glass required different temperatures and firing times, so one pair of cufflinks might go into the kiln anywhere from 2 to 4 times. The resulting highly dimensional organic shapes, rich colors, and complex patterns make it easy to see why these fused glass pieces were so popular.

The greatest challenge faced by this small business was copying. Victoria tried to keep her design ideas fresh and new, to stay ahead of the competition. The man who custom manufactured her porcelain blanks once came to her and told her someone else had approached him and asked him to make the blanks for them, too. He asked if Victoria minded. She told him she certainly did, and he agreed to continue to produce exclusively for her. Because of her fears of copying, she rarely employed anyone to help her with production. She says she hired one young woman for a while, but never allowed her to see the entire process from beginning to end.

In 1967, Victoria's career took an interesting new twist. A friend who owned a neighborhood bar around the corner from her stall decided to sell it. Victoria had never been in a bar, and was appalled the first time he took her there. In fact, she fled in horror down the street, as she had never seen such a "den of iniquity." But he came after her, laughing, calmed her down, and took her back with him. Once she got inside, she discovered it wasn't so bad after all. So she bought it.

For a few years, Victoria continued to make jewelry in the back room of the bar. But soon she found herself with little time and even less motivation. The bar was a far more profitable business than jewelry had ever been. And then she was offered the opportunity to buy a second bar, and then a third. So Victoria Flemming, now Victoria Hansen after a brief marriage to yet another very handsome man, became the busy proprietor of three 24 hour bars in New Orleans. By the early 1970s she was no longer painting porcelain.

Today she is 85 years old. She lives in the beautiful Esplanade Ridge District in a restored antebellum two story four column home furnished with antiques. A gardener/handyman/chauffeur assists her with daily activities, and her daughter lives nearby. Jewelry making stopped being part of her life 30 years ago, but she is proud to know that cufflink collectors continue to value and seek out her work. Victoria Flemming is an incredibly inspirational woman whose life has been proof that independence, courage, hard work, and talent can take an entrepreneur to astonishing levels, even when living, as she did, in an era when barriers to female achievement were high.

addendum:

Sadly, Victoria Hansen (AKA Victoria Flemming) passed away on July 27, 2004 at the age of 85. We will miss her very much.

© Copyright 2004 Vintage Fahion & Costume Jewelry - Used with permission

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